Anticipating a special screening at Liverpool Small Cinema of a film that offered a template for European Art House cinema, Getintothis’ Adam Scovell feels The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Rarely has there been a cinematic style of austerity as precise or as disarming as found in the work of Danish auteur, Carl T. Dreyer. Dreyer‘s worlds represent harsh systems of oppressors and the oppressed, created dutifully through a combination of historically carved faces, minimal, harsh architecture and a sense of unimpeded hopelessness.
The filmmaker would use this transcendental style to touch upon a variety of narratives and topics, from the supernatural in Vampyr (1932) to subtle questioning of the afterlife in Ordet (1955), but never was it as effective as when recounting the tragedy of Joan of Arc in his 1928 film, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.
In many ways, Dreyer‘s silent film represents a truthful last hurrah for silent film in Europe. Like the cinema of America, European silent film had reached monumental peaks in the dying years of the 1920s. Passion sits comfortably alongside films such as Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), F.W. Murnau‘s Faust (1926) and Abel Gance‘s Napoleon (1927) as one of the early visionaries of image and silent composition. While Lang, for example, would rely on the huge spectacles of futurist sci-fi dystopias, Dreyer sought only to use the bare face of humanity and its suffering in making his artwork a success.
The image of Joan in the midst of this suffering has passed quickly and smoothly into the lexicon of visual cinema, defining its early successes in showcasing the medium as a genuine outlet for creativity and thoughtful questioning rather than simply melodrama and slapstick comedy. Compared to these other juggernauts of silent film, Passion seems almost determined to collectively share the experience of this historic case of suffering, not wishing to colour or dramatically ease the story into the medium as some form of easy piece of sentimental escape.
Joan is played by French performer, Maria Falconetti, who seems to have genuinely lived through some trauma while making the film. Her face is the main image on show and represents the film as a whole; the dramatic turns, the quiet defeat on the outside shell hiding the inner rebellion are all projected through this one person like a light shining through a prism. As her head is shaved, there’s a sense of real-life horror with Falconetti reflecting both the martyrdom of Joan to her God and the actress herself to the director. It is telling that this was the last film she was to make in her short-lived film career.
Dreyer‘s camera is so close to Falconetti‘s face that it feels almost intrusive. The emotions that are being wrought from her become almost unbearable as her face fills the cinema screen to such a degree. It becomes a landscape in itself where a battle of submission is played out between her and her torturers; her trial as a heathen is a mockery but also test of her will and, at least in her eyes, her faith. Even though Dreyer spent time meticulously designing the sets and using them to create the harsh world that Joan is forced to live her last days out in, he really concentrates most on the facial agony and drama.
When directing her, he would, contrary to practice at the time, clear the set to its bare minimum of required crew; such was the intensity and precision of the direction he required to use with the performer. Through this, the film creates a great and unnerving sense of isolation for the character. Even though she is surrounded by people, the way she is now connected with the rest of humanity is horrifying. This is another theme of Dreyer‘s, where the worlds he creates is one that often attempts to hound the individual through connected groups of others.
Even when the film does escape from Joan‘s suffering and her claustrophobic trial room and cell, the visual world of the outside is just as austere and just as unforgiving of Joan for her different form of belief. The walls and skies are white; everywhere is white as if to mock further the false chastity and faux-moral superiority of the governing elite.
In spite of being pre-World War II, Passion therefore makes early and quite clear links between the cold inhuman shade of white and fascist totalitarianism; a relationship that culminated in Mussolini‘s Esposizione Universale Roma district, designed completely in white. It is a void of space and walls with no possible route of escape, except through the small, personal and ultimately apathetic state of personal belief.
Later in 1962, an even more pared back telling of Joan‘s trial would be made by Robert Bresson in the form of The Trial Of Joan Of Arc. While this version has much merit, it highlights why Dreyer‘s film works in the first place. For, by being so completely uncompromising in highlighting human emotion in deep close up, he created a film that all but defined European Art House cinema as the form known today.
Built on the best screen performance perhaps ever captured, it continues to be a cornerstone of the medium itself; a stark white pillar that foreshadows the darker years ahead for the continent.
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is screened at Liverpool Small Cinema on the 9th of April at 6:30. More information can be found here.